Friday, October 31, 2014

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Immature male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yes, there really is a bird called a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In this area, we only see them during the winter when they migrate from their summer range in Canada, Alaska and the extreme northern U. S. They are not particularly shy, but I don't see them that much. If you know their call, they may attract your attention, but you might also think you are hearing a cat mew. They sound very much like a cat with a weak mew.

I can't tell you how much enjoyment we have gotten from our bird feeder over the years. We are in and out of the kitchen all the time at our home and it has worked out well to have the feeder within view of the kitchen window. That way, if you are doing something at the kitchen sink, it is quite natural to see what is happening at the feeder. From the constant short lessons on bird behavior, over time, we have compiled quite an understanding of the behavior of different breeds of birds.

Adult female with no red feathers under her chin

Plus, when an uncommon bird migrates through the area, it is more likely to stop in and be seen because the regular birds are so relaxed and use to the feeder. That is what happened the other day when an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker appeared behind the deck. He was a little skittish and kept flying to a tree near the deck and then back into the woods a ways. He hung around long enough for me to get a couple of photos. I was pleased with the result seeing as I was hand-holding the telephoto and shooting through a window.

Same female with red feathers on her crest

I'm not sure what it was thinking because it's main diet is tree sap and the insects the sap attracts. It will also eat berries, but I am not sure if it will eat seeds. I have never actually seen one on the feeder.

There are a couple of trees on our property that they have targeted for sap. One is this Sweet Gum tree. You can see how extensively a YBSS has worked on it. Despite there being numerous other Sweet Gums all around it, this is the only one it taps.

Another tree it visits regularly is a pine called a Carolina Hemlock at the top of the driveway. All the holes they have drilled haven't seemed to affect either one, but I read that it is possible for them to girdle and kill a tree.

I was surprised one winter to see a YBSS sipping on a poison ivy vine. A mature poison ivy vine can be as big around as an adult's forearm. The hairy vine in this picture is the poison ivy vine it was sipping. I guess they must not be allergic to the sap.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Watching a Launch from North Beach

I went down to North Beach two nights this week hoping to get a photo or two of the launch of a resupply rocket for the International Space Station from Wallops Island off the coast of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. For those who don't live in the area, North Beach is a small resort community on the Western edge of the Chesapeake Bay. While it is maybe fifty miles or more from Wallops Island (as the crow flies), it is well within the visibility range for seeing the rocket go up. There is a nice long boardwalk in North Beach, so it makes for a good spot to watch.

I was amazed how many people had come down to watch. I thought the crowd the first night was surprisingly large, but the second night the crowd was even larger. The launch was scrubbed the first evening due to a sailboat being within the area where the first stage rocket could potentially land after separation.

I got to the boardwalk early and set up at the end of one of the smaller public docks off the boardwalk so I had some time on my hands. The wind was blowing probably 25-30 mph the first night so there was a little bit of wave action around the breakwaters and I played around with motion blur. Since it was so near dark, no filters were needed in order to leave the shutter open longer. The shutter was open for one second on this image.

It was still windy the second night, but not quite as bad as the first night. I had arrived early again and shot some more motion blur photos. Waterfalls are a pretty common subject for motion blur. Most of the waterfall photos I see tend to be overdone. At least to my taste. The shutter is left open for so long the water often appears as a creamy, featureless stream. I was really pleased with this image because the water has a lot of interest. It implies motion, but at the same time you can see a lot of detail in the wavelets. Because it was earlier in the evening, there was more light available and the shutter speed on this photo was one-half second.

There are so many variables with motion blur and water that it usually takes a lot of experimentation to get a combination of shutter speed and wave action that looks good. Shutter speed, the amount of available light, aperture, and more are involved, so it can be difficult to predict the result until you have taken a few images.

I looked up at one point, and saw a bird flying in from out on the Bay. For an instant, I thought it was a Great Blue Heron because I could see a lot of body out behind the wings similar to the characteristic straight legs of a Great Blue Heron in flight. I quickly realized it was an Bald Eagle, though. The fish made it look longer in the back end. I'm not sure what kind of fish it caught, but I don't think it was one of the more common species caught in the Bay. The anal fin, which is visible, is the kind usually seen on fish species that can swim very fast. The eagle was returning just before nightfall along with several fishing boats that were coming back to port.

As you probably know, we never did see the launch because the rocket exploded a few seconds after take off. It wasn't visible or audible from North Beach. It will probably be quite a while before folks have the opportunity to see another rocket launch. While there are no photos of the rocket launch, these photos will be like diary entries reminding me of that evening and the excitement of the crowd that came to see it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Putting it All Together

Over the past few blogs, I have detailed some of the meaning with which I try to invest my photos in terms of style and emotional impact. I spoke of the chiaroscuro and pictorialist styles as well as the words I have in mind when I am creating images. Just to review, the words were: Beautiful, whimsical, innocent, peaceful and revealing.

The more of these elements I can include in a single image, the closer it will be to defining something with which I am completely happy. With that in mind, Here are a few images that I think each contain a majority of the elements. I will list the factors I think are in play with each photograph.

The first one at the beginning of this blog was one I had not planned on. I had seen these three guys on other occasions going out crabbing. On this particular morning, the lighting was so wonderful, I felt compelled to take a couple of photos. I am not a voyeur. When I take candid pictures of people enjoying activities on the river, I try to contact them if possible to offer to send them the photos. If you were one of these guys, wouldn't you be happy to have a copy of the image? In this case, I know who owns the dock, and I have tried to contact them, unsuccessfully as of yet. But, I'm still trying.

Anyway, the elements that the image contains (in my mind) is the chiaroscuro style and beautiful, whimsical, innocent, and peaceful. So, it scores pretty high in my level of satisfaction with having taken it.

This image was taken on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.  Not a hundred yards inland, there was a marsh lagoon where a hundred or more Snowy Egrets were hunting for fish just like this bird. But, this one chose to brave the waves and fish here. I took a lot of pictures of that bird, but I also made a real advance that morning in my understanding of something Snowy's do that had been bugging me. I had been wondering for quite some time why Snowy Egrets don't get upset when another bird walks right through an area where they are standing stock still waiting for a fish to swim by. It was on this morning, watching this bird, that I realized they use the other bird in a symbiotic relationship to drive the fish to them.

To my way of thinking this image has the chiaroscuro style and can be described by all five of the words.

Eagles are difficult to film. They are not afraid of people, but they certainly don't seek them out. So, unless you have some other way of getting near them, your pictures are going to be pretty mundane. Yes, when you first take pictures of an eagle flying right overhead, it is exciting. And, maybe the second time. But when all the pictures begin to look alike, you lose the thrill. Given the choice between a close-up of an eagle flying overhead or a photo such as this one of an eagle revealing it's habitat, I think I would opt for the latter.

Since the eagle isn't trying to kill anything, I'd say it meets the idea of a peaceful image as well as the four other elements and the chiaroscuro style.

Here is the same general area that appears in the first photograph. It is a great area to employ the chiaroscuro style because of the way the sun rakes through an opening where a creek meets the river leaving the background in deep shadows. If you can get some action in the picture like the osprey catching a fish with a Great Blue Heron looking on, all the better. Notice also that the 16:9 aspect ratio is very pleasing to look at. If it were in a 3:2 or 5:4 aspect ratio, all it would do is add more water at the bottom or more dark trees at the top.

In my mind, this image also has all the elements I am looking for in creating a photo.

Here is another photograph that ranks high in containing all the elements I hope to include. The three osprey chicks from the nest I followed this summer took to sitting in this tree after they fledged. Sometimes, one would sit in a different spot nearby. There is much I never learned in watching these birds this year. I never saw any of them successfully catch a fish. The last time I saw one of them, it was still being fed by a parent. The parents migrate before the chicks. Once the parents left, I never saw the chicks again. Did they learn to fend for themselves? That is something I will never know.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

White-throated Sparrow

I looked out the kitchen window a few days ago and discovered the White-throated Sparrows had returned for the winter. These sweet little birds spend the summer from northern New England up through Canada. I would be willing to bet that the flock which just returned to my backyard is the same one that left here in the spring. Our flock of ten or fifteen birds like the brushy habitat on the edge of the woods behind our house.

Birds that migrate are much more site specific than we probably realize. There is no reason to carve out a new territory when they have found a location that meets all their needs. Unless that habitat has been destroyed through a natural disaster or a parking lot.

Like the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi:

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

What struck me the other day was how happy those little birds seemed to be to return to our backyard with the feeder that always has seed and a bird bath with water to drink and bathe in. Anyone who has travelled for a few days and returns home knows how they felt to be back in familiar surroundings with their own bed and their own pillow and snacks in the fridge.

Whether birds can display emotions like happiness is probably best left to a discussion on another day but, I tell you, those birds looked for all the world like they were just happy to be home.

Monday, October 27, 2014

An Early Autumn Morning

I went to the river on Saturday after a hiatus of six weeks or so. The last time I was down there I was discouraged by the lack of activity and decided to give it a rest. But I was curious over the weekend to see how autumn was progressing. The flock of geese left the area soon after I took this picture. All the geese were quite agitated because of it being hunting season.

This photo shows quite a bit of fall color but, in general, this has been about the worse autumn for color in this region in my memory. If you look along the top of the photo, you will see a line of geese heading downriver. Perched in the top of the tree over on the right with the white bark, are a pair of Bald Eagles.

If I zoom in digitally and crop tightly, the resulting image looks very much like it was painted. I'd love to be able to paint like that.

There is a large flock (murder) of crows that lives in that area and they are always up to no good. They were raising Cain in a nearby tree and I took a few pictures of them. I particularly liked this semi-silhouette of three as they flew off. It was only later looking at the pictures on the computer, I realized they were haranguing a hawk that was sitting in the lower reaches of the same tree.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pictorialism 3

Saturation can be a touchy subject with some photographers who think that increasing it verges on sin. If you look at almost any film made today, however, you will probably notice how the editors have pushed saturation. I'm not saying overuse it, but I have found increasing saturation is another means of portraying a pictorialist style image.

Okay, so maybe these come close to overdoing saturation, but notice how it shifts it out of the range of photograph and into the possibility of being something else altogether.

Fall leaves with their intense colors make good subjects for this method.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pictorialism 2

I mentioned two things yesterday that affects photographs in what most photographers would consider a negative way: atmosphere and pixels (or a lack thereof) that can lower resolution. This image is an example of a third: high ISO. ISO is basically the sensitivity of the image sensor to light. Digital cameras allow you to amplify the amount of light a sensor can record, but it is at the expense of detail. The higher the ISO, the less detail a photograph will contain. That is what is going on in this low light image taken a little before sunrise. Notice how the lack of detail causes it to look almost painted - especially the white branches on the trees for some reason.

Shifting the colors of an image is another means of creating a less photographic/more painterly image. Increasing the contrast can also infuse the image with a chiaroscuro-type look.

If I have the choice between passing on a photograph because the quality is not going to be very good, or taking a photograph because it shows interesting behavior, I'll go with taking a bad photograph. This young eagle was in the far distance trying to catch a fish, but it was far enough away that the photo contained the atmospheric problem I mentioned yesterday. Interestingly, the eagle made two passes and flipped the fish out of the water like this both times. I don't remember if it made a third pass.

It is possible in post production to impart a glow to a photograph which can have the effect of smoothing out detail. This can also work as a technique in the pictorialist style of photography.

Here, again, the action was so far away, the only available choice is to treat it in the pictorialist style because of the lack of detail. Most nature photographers go for images where they get as close as possible. I am guilty of the same thinking. But, what do you do when you can't get close? Quit taking pictures? It seems to me there is a lot of value to seeing something like these two osprey interacting within the environment they call home.

This image was taken at a shorter distance and, so, has more detail than the previous image. Personally, I enjoy the look of all these photos despite the lack of detail.

Photograph or painting? You make the call.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Over the last few days I have discussed the list of adjectives that I attempt to include as elements in the photographs I take. I have also discussed the chiaroscuro style of expression for which I am always on the lookout. Another method of which I am very fond is termed pictorialism. It was all the rage in early photography from about 1885-1905. Well known photographers who were proponents of the method included Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. I wasn't aware of it, but Ansel Adams and Edward Weston both began their careers as pictorialists.

Pictorialism refers to a style in which the photograph has been manipulated so that it is no longer a straight-forward photograph. It typically includes a lack of sharp focus.  Taking a quote from a Wikipedia article, Alfred Stieglitz stated it this way: "Atmosphere is the medium through which we see all things. In order, therefore, to see them in their true value on a photograph, as we do in Nature, atmosphere must be there. Atmosphere softens all lines; it graduates the transition from light to shade; it is essential to the reproduction of the sense of distance. That dimness of outline which is characteristic for distant objects is due to atmosphere. Now, what atmosphere is to Nature, tone is to a picture." The underlying intent was often to create an emotional response to the image.

This extreme close-up of a small area of detail in an image is an example of what Stieglitz was pointing out. Over a long distance, atmosphere (high humidity in summer, for example) will break up the lines of objects. The limitations of the number of pixels representing an object in the distance will also add to the lack of detail. Fewer pixels will result in less detail. It begins to look more like a painting and less like a photograph.

Here again, my inability to see clearly when I was young may have influenced my fondness for this style of photograph. The effect can be further enhanced post production. It is almost impossible to pleasingly sharpen a photograph if it is not sharp initially. It is not difficult to further soften it, however, and I have found I like the look. If someone who is looking at one of my photographs has to stop and ask themselves if it is a photograph or a painting, I consider that a successful example of my application of the technique.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Purposeful Photographer 6

I have to include the idea of revealing (elucidate, comprehend, clarify, articulate). When I am filming animals, it is with the idea of revealing something the viewer (which includes myself) may have never seen or does not know about that creature. One of the nice things about photography is the ability to take all the time you want to study something that may not normally be seen.

I can only hope that as people view my photographs, they will find them uplifting. I couldn't ask for any more than that.